"My music is the echo of my call…"
He also became keenly interested in the pagan North European ancestors (Celts and Vikings) and studied them intensively. More and more Mathias fell in love with the spiritual power in music, especially found in overtone and subharmonic chant, long deep synthesizer drones, and in North Indian raga music. He was influenced by the famous singing bowl sounds of Klaus Wiese (ex- POPUL VUH member) and their spiritual power within made Mathias very interested in the 'spiritual-energy-flow' and 'real charge' in music. After years of development in Munich with Klaus Wiese and in Italy doing overtone chant, doors began to open to many CD projects with talented musicians such as Rüdiger Gleisberg and Amir Baghiri (Arcanum and Lanzarote Spirits). During 1993-94 Mathias gave concerts in San Sebastian and the Lanzarote Festival in Spain. Following a concert near Frankfurt, 1996 was a year of creative intermission and collecting new inspiration by connecting with new musicians and labels. After this Mathias, Amir Baghiri, and Oophoi had three concerts produced by 'Deep Listenings' publisher Gianluigi Gasparetti near Rome in October '99. Recently Mathias has been collaborating with more and more artists and sideprojects.
MB: To me it’s always interesting to learn about the complete picture, including how an artist arrived at his particular way of making music, therefore I start with my questions at a very early point. Can You still remember, on which occasion a drone – as a noteworthy sonic or musical event in itself – ever grabbed your attention? Or else, some other musical key experience from your childhood?
MG: Well, those were probably sounds which reached me on a subconscious level, and it’s hard to remember any of them consciously. The sound of the ocean surf? Far away church bells? Some vague memories arise, similar to those triggered by fragrances, but I can’t really tell why, for example, those bells ringing from the distance touch me so deeply. Certainly there must have been also musical experiences very early on but I can’t recall which songs or albums that had been, either.
MB: Were there any artistic influences coming from your family or wider social environment, e.g. were your parents or other important adults around you musicians? And since spirituality plays an important role in your music, or goes along with it, I’d also be interested how much influence your parents had in such matters.
MG: There hardly had been any spiritual or religious influence. Also, I don’t come from a family of musicians. My brother wanted to take piano lessons, and later my parents offered the same to me as well. However I wasn’t interested in walking the path of a classical musician or visiting a conservatory. Which turned out the right decision, because when finally the wish arose to play keyboards I already was 16 and felt more clearly what I really wanted to do.
MB: So You didn’t learn any instrument during Your childhood? How did You like musical education at school: was it helpful and stimulating – or rather limiting or repressive?
MG: Right, no musical lessons as a child. Making music for me started in the late seventies, with a self-built drum kit, followed by guitar and later a synthesizer. Music at primary school was dull – only German folk songs like "Im Frühtau zu Berge." In high school things started to get boring again, but with Schulze and TD, to just mention a few, I successfully opposed that boredom.
MB: You grew up in the seventies and thus have received the „usual musical socialization" of that generation. I’d like to ask you about different genres, or groups of bands or musicians, who probably had some influence on Your own musical creations: 70s "progressive" rock / hard rock / metal (and similar)?
MG: Quite a strong influence until today, although it’s not very obvious in my actual work. Any kind of music influenced me in some way, but I also drew lines; rock and electronic music always were present. For many years, I used to listen for hours to music every evening, the choice depending on my mood. Somewhere there was a sense of making differences, then again everything happened at the same time.
MB: "Classic" 70s electronic (space) music and Berlin School (first of all Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream, but also Jarre, Vangelis, Cluster, Kraftwerk etc.)?
MG: A surprisingly small influence – except for TD and Schulze obviously. The old German electronic music and also the "Neue Deutsche Welle" that later came out of it always was too strenuous and experimental for my taste and rather got on my nerves (e.g. NEU !). I liked La Düsseldorf or Kraftwerk only partly and preferred to listen to the "Munich School" instead...
MB: Brian Eno, Fripp & Eno or related?
MG: Eno’s music did never touch me a lot; I never really did understand the hype around him. I like Fripp though, especially his work with David Sylvian, for example.
MB: Popol Vuh, Klaus Wiese & Peter Michael Hamel (and related)?
MG: An extremely strong influence. Especially Hamel is one of my creative idols and sources of inspiration.
MB: As you say, German composer, electronic musician, author and university lecturer Peter Michael Hamel, who is also a personal friend of yours for many years, was an especially important influence to you. Incidentally his book "Durch Musik zum Selbst" (Through Music to the Self), but also his early albums, impressed me a lot as a young person, too – so I’d like to follow up with some more questions about him. How did You get to know Peter’s music?
MG: By chance rather. The first album I came across was "Nada" and over time I bought the others as well.
MB: What’s your favorite Hamel album?
MG: As a complete album it’s "Organum". Otherwise different tracks from different albums, especially those with church organ and PPG synth.
MB: What is it, to you, that makes his music so special? What had been the difference to other music that had influenced you up to this point?
MG: Not easy to put that into words. Somehow some of his tracks touch me so profoundly, that it just leaves me in total awe. That hasn’t changed until today and I’m surprised that a well-structured, academically trained composer is able to reach me in this way. Before discovering Hamel, I only knew similar effects from improvised music. This, together with the background that was provided by his book, made me realise that he was especially gifted.
MB: Did his thoughts on music (especially from his book) influence you directly, and open up new ground for you? Or were you already familiar with the topics that he speaks about (Asian music, meditation, ragas and so on), even before you came in touch with his work?
MG: No, his book really was the initiation and did show me new paths, as well as making me see how all these things correlated. J. E. Behrendts book "Nada Brahma – The World Is Sound" later was a welcome addition and further exploration of these topics.
MB: When did you meet each other in person for the first time?
MG: Well, that was in the late 80ies via the "Frankfurter Ring", where Peter held workshops and gave concerts.
MB: Did you ever create any music together?
MG: No never. That idea just never came up. Until today, our friendship is purely on a personal level.
MB: Did you receive any further musical impulses from your conversations with Peter when you met in person that added new aspects to what his book and his actual music already had given you?
MG: No, not really. Being together, and also his letters probably did, in some way, but there were no "insights" or "impulses" as a direct result of our actual conversations. It’s just an interesting thing to see how a person turns from being a detached, distant composer to an “ordinary” friend. Our meeting in 2016 was disillusioning in a way, but I also received a lot from it.
MB: Did you meet other musicians (or maybe producers / labels etc) via Peter, who inspired you or were otherwise significant for you and your work?
MG: No - in the 80's he was already more at home in the world of academic music, and this world was quite different from that of his Kuckuck-Albums and his book. He often mentioned names that were familiar (e.g. Michael Hoenig, as an example from the electronic scene), but it was rather through Klaus Wiese that I met interesting people.
MB: Can you tell us one or two anecdotes about, or interesting things that happened around Peter which were especially memorable?
MG: Well, the most intense encounter was our meeting at Easter 2016. It was very personal, open minded and close. I got to know Peter as a human being, beyond his persona of a well-known musician. That was a perplexing experience and characterized by such a – partly tragic - profundity, that I don’t want to disclose the details of here.
MB: Before we get back to a very important topic which we already touched when we spoke about the "Munich School" – the spiritual aspect of music, and music as a means of healing – I’d like to take a look at your musical career for those who don’t know it closely yet. Do you still remember the first piece that you ever recorded and were satisfied with? Is that on any of your albums?
MG: My first pieces were just weird guitar noise and strange synth sounds. On one of my albums…? Heaven help…! (laughs) Even by the most well-meaning standards I couldn’t even call that stuff “experimental music”. Sheer dilettantism – but also great fun! I thought my first multi-track recordings were OK, that was around 1981.
MB: What was Your first label release, and how did that contact come about?
MG: That was "At the Gates of Dawn" on cassette, recorded in 1985 and released in February 1986 by Aquamarin from Munich. They were a mail order bookstore specialized in U.S. New Age who also had discovered the music market and produced cassettes which mainly were sold through esoteric shops. That way, for me spirituality and music were quite automatically linked from start. However, I left this kind of New Age behind at the end of the Eighties – the music from that scene finally had transformed into faceless, over-sugared kitsch which wasn’t my cup of tea.
MB: The title brings Pink Floyd to mind; has your early music – or that special album – been inspired by them?
MG: Well, the music in no way – but I liked that particular title, and so I have borrowed it.
MB: What happened after Aquamarin, concerning labels and distribution?
MG: Aquamarin was followed by the rise of the CD from 1990 on. Because I already had a name, and also via connections, I was approached by different labels. AIM from Munich and also the cult label "NO-CD-REKORDS" from Spain, later AMPLEXUS from Italy and so on. In the early Nineties there was a little “golden age” of ambient music. Especially Steve Roach, Robert Rich and Michael Stearns who all had some serious success in those days. I’m still very fond of those three guys even today!
MB: Which of Your albums is the most commercially successful so far?
MG: Without a doubt and by far "El-Hadra" with Klaus Wiese. I don’t know the exact sales numbers but 100,000 wouldn’t be an exaggeration.
MB: How is your situation concerning releases and distribution today – especially given the now very familiar crisis that is facing the music industry in the 21st century?
MG: Unfortunately, it grows worse and more and more frustrating: On the one hand the costs of production are lower than ever; but CD sales are also much lower than they used to be. At the moment the shocking truth is that production runs of 200 copies are sufficient. And I don’t usually do a second run after that. With better promotion over time I can see up to 500 CD sales in some cases, but that’s it.
MB: You are a very prolific musician and your catalogue is filled with an impressive number of releases. Could you pick four of your albums which are especially close to your heart and briefly tell us why these albums are important to you?
MG: Four? Ummm, well "Psychic Dome" really was something special, and "Ambience" – the title says it all, this album also paved the way for many which followed. Also "Himavat" set standards in the late nineties. In the new millennium everything seemed to happen at once. It’s hard to highlight any particular album. At the moment I like "Harmonia Mundi" a lot; but I need time - 10 years at minimum – to really rate an album with hindsight. Certain other albums I probably wouldn’t release anymore from today’s point of view.
MB: You also collaborated a lot with other musicians - again, could you please name two or three examples of which you have fond memories?
MG: Well, certainly "Arcanum" with Rüdiger Gleisberg and Amir Baghiri; and the albums with John Haughm of Agalloch and my work with Jim Cole.
MB: Speaking of Rüdiger Gleisberg – just recently you made "The House On The Borderland" by Nostalgia available again via Bandcamp (as far as I know it was out of print for some time) – and much to my personal delight, since it is one of my favorite albums of all times, and I think that it deserves much more attention as it has received so far! Would you like to tell us about the making of this album, and maybe also about the project "Nostalgia" in general? As far as I know, it’s a cooperation between yourself and musician / composer Rüdiger Gleisberg in the first place, with changing additional guest musicians? Do you have plans for further Nostalgia albums in the future? Where you already familiar with the novel by William Hope Hodgson, which the album is an adaptation of, before that project (for info on the book, see link)?
MG: As far as I remember, "House on the Borderland" almost was elected "Album of the Month" in the big goth magazine "Orkus". If we had had better distribution and a record label who was willing to fund a tour, this album would have been a huge success, I think. It had never been completely out of print, though, if we count also the rather poor intermediate EC release. Today I offer the album only as a digital release – which makes it basically available to an unlimited audience. It’s important to point out though, that although we can say it was a collaboration by Rüdiger Gleisberg and I plus guest musicians, in the case of this particular album the third protagonist, Luigi Seviroli, was the main "creative director" and also the one who initially came up with the concept. In this case it was Rüdiger and I who completed the work, most of the orchestral parts were composed by Luigi, who, I think, did a great job and congenially realized the all-over concept. When we recorded the album, I still didn’t know the story, but I knew about the dramatic and tragic life of it’s author.
All in all, "House on the Borderland" was something of a "chance project", which was released under the "Nostalgia" flag, but actually it was a deviation from the style of the first album. We released more albums – four in total; at the moment the project is hibernating; how long, I don’t know. I think to be perceived as a "real" band and to satisfy a larger audience, we needed to go on tour, but we live too far apart from each other to do so. We all have families and the three of us (Grassow, Gleisberg and Carsten Agthe) don’t really want to make that effort with our (all in all) more than 150 years on Earth. Directly after the first release of "House on the Borderland" there should have happened some systematic promotion on the part of our producers, labels and music publishers, to make us stay on the scene. In the meanwhile Nostalgia is – except for fans like you – mostly forgotten; and to prevent that, we had needed better management, and touring. But I have no hard feelings because of that; all of the four albums had had their time, and were a joy when we recorded them.
MB: How did you meet Rüdiger?
MG: More than 25 years ago, at the birthday party of an electronic music fan in Wiesbaden.
MB: What else did the two of you do together, music wise?
MG: Except for some guest appearances by Rüdiger on my albums "Expanding Horizon" and "Lanzarote Concert" only Nostalgia.
MB: Who took the initiative in the case of Nostalgia?
MG: I did.
MB: And what’s your own favorite album of the four that you released so far?
MG: "House on the Borderland" is my favorite, too, but I also like our debut, "Arcana Publicata Vilescunt" a lot and think it’s quite a timeless album.
MB: What can you tell us about the other guest musicians?
MG: Well, I guess Rüdiger Gleisberg needs no introduction, (percussionist and didgeridoo player) Carsten (Agthe) also appeared as a guest on several of my albums, and Luigi Seviroli is a well-known Italian movie soundtrack composer. Perhaps we’ll also make a musical adaptation of Poe’s "Fall of the House of Usher" one day, but that’s just a vague idea so far. At one point there were also plans for a movie version of "House on the Borderland", with our music as a soundtrack, but I never heard again from that director, except for the usual "independent filmmakers – no money etc." talk. We will see what the future brings.
MB: Can you tell us about two or three of your concerts that were especially memorable?
MG: Well, the festival in San Sebastian was tremendous; organization and support were first class!! Same thing with the Lanzarote concert - unforgettable regarding the huge effort that went into it, technical equipment, and professional organization. The Prague concerts were well prepared and organized, too.
And of course I have to mention the memorable performance that Oöphoi (Gianluigi Gasparetti, Italian ambient musician1958 – 2013) had organized in his place in 1999 – however that was more or less a "private concert". It was there where I also first met Robert Rich and Alio Die. Steve Roach and I already knew each other from Paderborn, where he worked with Elmar Schulte on different albums for their project "Solitaire".
MB: When did the concerts in San Sebastian and Lanzarote take place, and how did you get the chance to participate?
MG: The organizers gave me a call. I was already rather well known back then, and people involved in the scene and with some degree of interest couldn’t quite ignore me. But I also remember a fan from those days, who promoted me in Spain. Sadly, he has passed away a while ago. San Sebastian happened in 1993 and Lanzarote in 1994.
MB: Do you remember any reactions, letters or conversations from or with listeners, or at concerts, that mean a lot to you, or seem "typical" or otherwise remarkable?
MG: Sure, there were many. For example, I was quite surprised, how irritated, almost hostile even fans can get when you don’t play the star, but just behave like an average person. Many are confused by that. They want to meet an icon. To them, you are always just your music. That made me quite sad. I started to realize how lonely real stars must feel, in spite of the fact that everyone wants to be like them. Something that once really hurt me was an abysmally negative and personally insulting review, that even haunted me in my sleep. Before that happened, I wouldn’t have guessed that such a thing could affect me so much. However, that thing could be sorted out later on.
Fan mail and reviews have grown so much over the years that I stopped at some point to collect and memorize them. There were some touching letters or emails by people who experienced a breakthrough by listening to my music, or even who’s chronic diseases got much better; most of the listeners however are hunters and collectors, who just follow that passion. And why not? But every "You are the best!" and "Keep it up!" is encouraging!
MB: Klaus Wiese was an ambient musician who I know by name, however I don’t know much more about him. Would you like to tell us a little bit about him? Where did you meet him, and how did your collaboration come about? Have you stayed in contact beyond your musical project? Were you already familiar with his music before you met him and if so, had it already been an important influence?
MG: The cosmos of Klaus Wiese is too vast to sketch our 22 years of friendship in just a few lines. Already the term "ambient musician" doesn't do justice to who he was and what he did. He was a world musician, very much influenced by Eastern philosophy, a Sufi – and he had a very equanimous attitude towards music. He worked with sounds so very precisely, but at the same time he was rather negligent when it came to promotion, distribution and self management. Sometimes his ways were mysterious and incomprehensible. No goal, only the present moment counted - in one moment it was all about music, then it was all about photography or just sitting for hours drinking tea. We recorded several albums together, and each of us contributed his special sound. Being a Popol Vuh member was like living together in some kind of commune, and that way he had been part of the picture – that's how he called it. In the days of love and peace everyone was part of it who just showed up. And yes indeed his music had a big influence on me! Together with Hamel, Klaus Wiese is my main inspirator. I met him via Aquamarin in Munich somewhere in 1987, because both of us released albums there and were fascinated by each other's music.
MB: You have also called Klaus Wiese "my Sufi mentor" – does that mean that the two of you also were in personal contact beyond actually making music, concerning spiritual matters? Or was it rather his music that conveyed such impulses to you?
MG: Yes, we met in Munich one or two times per year, and I learned a lot on these occasions, but what it was exactly was never so clearly defined. The things he taught me transcended music by far; it was about the wisdom of life, to discover the important among the unimportant, self-composure and equanimity. These were great years and the music was just a medium to convey deeper teachings.
MB: Thinking of Popol Vuh, Alois Gromer (aka Al Gromer Khan) also comes to my mind, who certainly also can be seen as part of the "Munich School". Do you know him, and have you ever created music together at some point?
MG: Yes, we've met on several occasions, but no musical collaborations every happened.
MB: You've already been an active ambient musician for three decades and during those years you have witnessed many changes in this genre. You have always been one to stay in touch with your fellow artists, as well as with labels, magazines, concert managers, fans and so on – what do you think about how this genre has developed, especially regarding the solidarity of "the scene" or the sense of community that has grown over time? Is there a big difference between, let’s say, 1989 and today? Or has everything more or less remained the same, and only the name of the genre has changed (from space music to new age, new age to ambient, ambient to psy chill - whatever) over the years?
MG: Well, I’d like to quote my friend Peter Michael Hamel here : "There is only ONE Lady Musica who I am married to!". Those genre distinctions are created by others, and especially with our kind of music there’s a lot of pigeonholing going on. Less has changed that it may seem at first glance. Always new wine in old bottles (or vice versa). Surely, there were some counterpoints in the evolution of ambient music, and the discoveries of the day brought about changes of focus. But no style really had a time "from… – to…", all such categorisations are artificial. Everything happens all the time – it’s only the focus of perception that’s shifting.
Something like a spirit of community didn’t really exist. Many people tend to glorify or romanticise such things – like I often do with the 1960s and early 70s.
MB: It seems that today – especially due to the blessings of computer technology - an unprecedented number of people produces electronic music, including drone ambient and experimental electronica, a situation by the way, that already had been anticipated by people like American composer and computer music pioneer Laurie Spiegel in the late 1970s. Your American colleague Robert Rich described that development in an interview with the words: "Everyone is pollywog in the puddle now".
I suppose, especially for musicians who had a taste of commercial success at some point, that this situation is very difficult, or at least a two-edged sword. What’s your position here? Does the growing number of ambient releases seem to be economically or artistically threatening to you? Do you see your own work losing significance or value? Or is it, on the contrary, an acknowledgment that shows that there are a great many people all over the world who take this music, which has been a rather "niche genre", very seriously? What consequences has this trend had since the dawning of the Internet on your work in particular?
MG: That’s quite a big question and calls for a long answer. First of all, I never thought of any of my colleagues as a "threat", however I was annoyed at times by certain musicians who thought it was cool to do ambient music along the way as some sort of "side project" just so they could add it to their portfolio. These guys don’t quite realize that the "required skills" in this genre are not so much virtuosity, or the ability to use high-end equipment, but instead it is manifested in the ability to convey a sort of "spiritual sensitivity", and in the inner drive to utilize drones for gaining and communicating deep insights into ourselves and the universe.
That may sound very idealistic, but that’s OK. To me, ambient, and especially drones, are no entertainment, also not a drug to kick you into oblivion, but a profound inner work that I want to share with my audience. A massive devaluation of the music happens at other places and as an example I offer my music via Bandcamp so that my listeners have the luxury to pre-listen each track in it’s entirety before the honest listeners decide to purchase the music and then get real "value for money". That’s a good thing but then there are dubious "Bandcamp downloader apps" which are offered in a quite cheeky way via magazines like "Computer-Bild" and also freeware apps to rip Bandcamp albums without having to pay for them. In my eyes this is simply criminal, and there should legal steps be taken against such things. I’m happy that it’s possible today to produce good music on a small budget.
Electronic equipment is so much less expensive today than 30 years ago! I also appreciate that talented people can present themselves and their music easily to a world wide audience today. The bitter downside of that is the almost pathological hunting and collecting of digitized music that more and more shifts away from quality to a faceless mass pursuit of music in even low quality versions. The market is polluted with that but ambient music is not the only genre affected by these shifts. Economic success is a relative thing, and any genre has it’s good and bad times. And of course it’s simply not possible to become skilled in everything having to do with ambient music such as studio technology, self distribution, marketing and so on. I have a daytime job, and to manage everything connected to music perfectly in addition to that is more than I can handle.
MB: Well, that is – or was – the big promise of the Internet that any creative person could successfully present and sell his or her art without the need for a label, or publisher etc. But like you said this "freedom" turned out to be too demanding in terms of self-management for most artists to make a lot of sense. From that perspective, the way the "old" music industry had been (and partly still is) organised may still be the better concept. The musician composes and performs the music, the audio engineer takes care of producing a clean recording, the producer handles the mixing and mastering. The management takes care of promotion and concerts and others take care of distribution and so on. Perhaps in such a setting the artist had more of a chance to concentrate on his "core business" which was their music but only if they were lucky enough to get signed by a label. On the other hand a lot of musicians seem to have felt they were slaves to their labels. A complex situation! If you had the choice today, what would be the ideal setting for you to receive the best results artistically?
MG: Without any question to share the work with people who I can trust. To say that labels only make slaves of their artists is nonsense. Usually independent labels give a lot of freedom to musicians. And those who seek commercial success go for it no matter what including the dark sides of the business.
I had success with "El-Hadra". And a the rapper known as Drake sampled a track by Bruno Sanfilippo and I for his million-selling hit "Started from the Bottom". Success also means to be able to handle the shady side. In both of these cases of success I never saw any money, by the way.
MB: You just mentioned your daytime job – what do you do?
MG: I have been a commercial clerk for the last 32 years.
MB: Do you enjoy your day time job as much as creating music and are these two fields of interest on the same priority level for you? Or is your heart beating for music only and the daytime job is just a necessary means of survival?
MG: It is a necessary means but when it comes down to it my perception of this is also changing. Life is day-to-day in the first place, and the way I see and treat other people is the mirror of my own inner state, and evolution. It is a mutual interaction, and to feel a resonance is a wonderful thing!
MB: You also have a family, and from my personal experience I know that family life sometimes is hard to align with living the intense life of an artist. What is your point of view on this issue?
MG: Actually, I can’t subscribe to that idea. I had my creative highs and recorded the best tracks right in the middle of times of “family stress”! There’s no such thing as a formula or "ideal" conditions, which determine when the soil for good music will be most fertile. If I have any message at all, it’s so simple that it goes almost unrecognized or isn’t taken very seriously. The kiss of the muse doesn’t care at all for our day-to-day life.
MB: I’d also like to ask some questions about the technical aspects of the production of your music. Can you briefly tell us which synthesizers, keyboards or other tools – like effects modules etc - you have used throughout your career?
MG: Woha… there have been so many over the years that I can hardly remember them all!
It all started with the Roland SH-2000, followed by the complete Korg MS series, and from then on at different times almost all of those big names: Memorymoog, Rhodes Chroma, Oberheim Xpander, the Jupiter series, Hartmann Neuron, Sequential T-8 and so on. The most creatively inspiring synthesizer for me in fact was the Neuron, the coolest sound came from the T-8 (I played most of my first CD “Prophecy” with it).
All other tools, like groove boxes, FX modules or software were too many to list here in any kind of in detail, and to be honest I don’t think that’s so important after all.
MB: Has the way you produce your music remained more or less the same over the years, or did it change a lot with the evolution of electronic tools?
MG: It has indeed changed a lot. For the last 10 years I have worked with a very reduced set-up and spend time re-mixing existing basic tracks rather than recording new ones. At some point after 2010 I bought some synths by Dave Smith, however I didn’t feel much inspired by them which wasn’t due to any shortcomings of those excellent instruments, but rather it became evident to me that I needed to embark in a new direction. This new direction becomes more and more obvious to me, but I don’t want to reveal more about that at the moment.
MB: Could you give me some examples of your usual process of composition / production with some of your tracks?
MG: My rather unorthodox production methods are like a good recipe and I’m neither able nor willing to reveal them give them away in an interview. It’s a very simple thing, still very hard to describe and can best be compared to a kind of score that has grown over the years and that culminates in the intuitive mixing of a given piece of music. Much is happening ‚by chance‘, sometimes when I’m not even in the same room, and I just FEEL, when a drone has that certain magic. This may or may not be a special talent or gift that is specific to me but that’s irrelevant and I actually don’t want to discuss it. There are artist who touch me very deeply, and others who I’d rather tell, "Better try something else because you lack the sensitivity to achieve the required depth." But because that can quickly sound rather arrogant, and because I don’t "construct tracks from A to B" anyway I’m rather reluctant to speak much about my way of making music. Maybe I have already said too much.
MB: Do you rely on electronic sounds to achieve the kind of musical aesthetics you envision? Or do you imagine ways to create music that would have the same vibe by using a choir, a church organ, a string orchestra or a tamboura, without any electronics?
MG: In fact I have already done that especially in the late eighties. There are entire cassettes (yeah!) exclusively recorded with gongs, singing bowls, zither, tamboura, harmonium and overtone or throat singing (which I learned 1987 in Italy). Some of these recordings were maybe a bit naive, and a bit quirky, but they have their own special charm. Parts of them found their way onto several of my later CD releases (although mixed differently) for example on the two "Tiefweite Stille" albums from Databloem’s "Practicing Nature" series (Databloem is a Dutch label).
MB: Well, so far we have amply discussed the "surface" of making your music, now I think we might try to also explore the depths, heights and the endless space of the spiritual aspect of your music (or life in general) as far as words can reach there. First of all, is "spiritual" a fitting term from your point of view? Would you say you are a "spiritual" person? Or if not what would you rather call that aspect of your life?
MG: Well, I don’t want to throw around buzzwords or other (once or now) fashionable phrases. Spiritual is OK, but not the kind that is hyped for commercial purposes by the "candles on your bathtub" well being esoteric shops (or whatever).
Inner work at many times is a painful process that takes away all your illusions and explores the very core of who you really are. Therefore, the answer is, yes however I don’t want to explain that further at the moment.
MB: As a child or teenager, were you already interested in religion, philosophy, or maybe psychology or mental healing, before you got to know music (by Hamel or others) that gives expression to such topics? Or did those interests rather grow hand in hand with your own involvement in, and practice of, music?
MG: As a boy I had at best the notion to be different. I didn’t like school. I was neither interested in blind learning according to the system, nor in doing anything just because everyone else did so, or because it always had been that way. However I was rather shy about my protest, and kept it to myself. I was not an active rebel. I hated both punks and their antagonists, the hipsters, at the same time. I preferred to escape to my world of Roger Dean images (illustrator of Yes cover art, etc.) and those kinds of bands from the seventies. Klaus Schulze was much closer to my romantic ideas than radical political activists and their music. Then again I was quite fascinated by "Proletenpassion" ('Proletarian Passion') by Schmetterlinge, and also by Ton, Steine Scherben.
My interest in religion and philosophy was actually triggered by my love for fantasy and horror dime novels. The great 'Macabros' series by the legendary author Dan Shocker was one of the key experiences but very soon of course that also included the music of Deuter, Hamel, Popol Vuh, Stephan Micus. Not so much the good old Berlin School style though. That music was very good for dreaming and escaping the treadmill of the daily school routine, but not so much for supporting spiritual growth. For that reason, I always felt closer to the so-called 'Munich School'. Music and literature were a great help to my understanding of 'being different' better and, with that understanding, to go deeper inside. However I don't think that there was any ONE key experience that had catapulted me in that direction. When I was only 16, I had already read the "Tibetan Book Of The Dead" and the Upanishads. Certainly that was quite unusual, but it was also an escape from life.
MB: So there was never any "spiritual initiation" that put that field of interest on the table at once, but it rather crystallised quietly and gradually?
MG: No, there wasn't one such thing, but still some important points of reference. Starting with Deuter and those great Osho quotations on his album covers (his album 'Aum' was a collaboration with my later Sufi mentor Klaus Wiese, by the way), followed by some books I read at school (like "The Gold of Caxamalca" by Jakob Wassermann) and finally one of the most important keys in 1981, when a friend who worked in the nearby 'Synthesizerstudio Jacob' in Wiesbaden introduced me on the same day (!) to Timothy Leary, Alan Watts and all those icons of the wild sixties AND above all I borrowed the LP „The Voice of Silence“ by Peter Michael Hamel to me, which was a huge eye opener. Until this very day I have rarely listened to a more intense album with a more striking spiritual message. I will never forget that day, it was s a milestone in my life. Later on, a lot more things happened, including some disillusioning experiences. Maybe I should write my autobiography some day soon?
MB: That would be interesting for sure! I also think that when it comes to spirituality those disillusioning moments might be the crucial ones. Especially in your case. I understand you had such experiences, but after all that you still stayed on the path. I believe as a young person it’s easy to fall in love with spiritual ideas but a question that I personally keep thinking about is, is it possible to keep following a spiritual path when it turns out that life is more difficult and complex, and maybe dryer and less romantic than I had believed?
MG: Well, the unfolding of our spirituality is something very personal and intimate, and at the same time something we also should share with others.
Unfortunately, polarisations and misunderstandings happen rather quickly when it comes to this especially when wisdom is involved that transcends the personal level, which is universal and actually makes use of traditional patterns of relationships without misusing those. For example accepting someone as a teacher, or questioning religion and belief(s) per se and that way take away the foundations of our conditionings, of the things that drive us. Disillusioning are, in that context, those moments that shake your fundaments and which are partly not very obvious or tangible, moments that reveal truths on an intuitive level and which really make you doubt everything you thought you knew about yourself. This is an essential thing, and it’s hard but one doesn’t necessarily need to turn away when it ‘gets too hot’. JUST in those moments we should cross the threshold and consciously encounter our fears to transform ourselves. In the end, it doesn’t matter THAT we have to die it’s important with which attitude we die. Having to die is an unchangeable fact but our attitude towards it, how we are in that crucial moment, is something that is in our hands…
MB: Could you briefly give us an idea what, in your opinion, exactly it is that music can do in the field of healing, or spirituality? And are these effects that music, or sounds have for everyone or does it require a special sensitivity on the part of the listener?
MG: I’m unable to answer this question in just a few lines. However, I think that music can be a very important key to healing, because it is vibration, and humans consist of about 60 % of water.
But because we are used to perceiving music with only our ears , with our brain acting like a filter we try to understand, or to pigeonhole, or to categorize what we hear. The healing effect that music COULD achieve is rooted deeply within our minds, but it’s buried, or not (yet) activated in our DNA. The ancient philosophy of Nada Yoga, which is one thing Hamel wrote about in his book, is all about one’s quest for his or her very own inner sound, and the resonances to that. The sounding of the drones is what comes closest to this and is the path and the goal at the same time. In the end, everything resolves into void. That "Magnificent Void" is the absence of any emotions or feelings. God is NOTHINGNESS.
MB: Was there any specific experience that made these dimension, or this special potential, of music obvious to you – maybe when listening to music, or working on your own music or at one of your concerts?
MG: Certainly when listening to "The Voice of Silence" by Hamel, and also to his "Bardo", "Apotheosis" and "Organum", then "Hearing Solar Winds" by David Hykes, or "Baraka" , "Maraccaba" and "Uranus" by Klaus Wiese, to just mention a few.
Music in combination with mind expanding substances certainly in an optimal setting has the potential to open doors, but it’s up to each person to actually go through them and not everything is meant for everyone. Therefore, I’d like to give a serious warning: blind and uninhibited drug use is a dangerous thing and hardly ever helps real spiritual transformation.
MB: Well, there is certain music, and musical traditions, in which spiritual or religious experiences find a direct expression. On the one hand on a more intellectual level (music that tells us about such topics or experiences) on the other hand music as a tool to induce certain modes of consciousness, which are suitable to bring the listeners (and the musicians) into a meditative or otherwise spiritually relevant state of mind usually with the goal of uplifting everyone concerned and often to achieve a healing or purifying effect on a mental or even a physical level.
On the one side there’s the European tradition of church music, and on the other side there are many forms of so called ‚ethnic’ music, or from non-European cultures, which for example Peter Michael Hamel, but also other authors (Behrendt etc.) think of as significant and healing, like shamanic music, (classical) Indian music, Tibetan music, music from North Africa and the Middle East (especially Sufi music) or Gamelan music from Java; or to some degree the psychedelic music of the late 60s and early 70s, or trance techno in the 90s. How important was, or is, this kind of traditional music to you especially in regards to your own work?
MG: Extremely important, back then and as well as today. Without the background I have acquired, my music would sound completely different. I have always tried to connect to many different musical traditions. One thing though I never really could get into was jazz. I just skipped most of the jazz chapters in Behrend’s book. I can’t change that however I am able to respect a musical tradition without personally enjoying it.
MB: Do you see yourself as being a part of this tradition of music, or one of the (specific) traditions (not necessarily regarding the exact forms, but rather regarding intention and effect)? If so, how does that show in your music? Or do you rather feel your path is parallel to theirs?
MG: One thing is for sure: I always wanted and I still want music to be something beyond mere entertainment. And so I ended up with drones. It also could have turned out differently by some other chain of coincidences, or a different walk of life. I might have been a rock or classical musician as well. As I see it, my path is parallel in some aspects, but still more of continuing a tradition.
I remember that when Klaus Schulze started to use the GDS computer system for his album “Dig It” in 1980, the spirit of his earlier work seemed to be lost, and I felt that urge to expand, and to articulate more precisely, what he had done during his high times in the seventies. Indeed that was one very important reason for me to get involved in electronic music! How this actually was taking shape I can’t really describe – unless I’d try to make a science of it. “He who has ears, let him hear.” ;-)
MB: In your opinion, what particular elements in music are especially potent in terms of bringing about spiritual, meditative or healing effects? Do you try to consciously make use of such elements – like having a plan or a concept before recording the actual music – or do you rather follow your intuition while recording and consider at a later point if a certain piece of music turned out to induce a desired effect?
MG: At some point I stopped trying to find a "formula" or the philosopher’s stone. Just in the past few years I had some crises but I also received impulses such as “What good is all this that always sounds the same, people just consume, but don’t really understand it – and so on…” I listen inside myself to see where all this wants to go, and I would love to connect this music much more intensely with other art forms, and also to do actual medical research and make more conscious therapeutic use of sounds.
I keep wondering why music – except for some singing bowl clanging and Om Shanti chanting – after all only seems to remain on the fringes in esoteric circles.
I firmly believe in the power that Nada Yoga is said to have, and in the "lost and forgotten" ability of the ancient Indian masters to influence the weather and tame wild animals.
I had the good fortune to witness for myself at three very moving and stunning concerts that such things really happen (oh yes – these also were essential key experiences!). First in 1987, Schirn Museum in Frankfurt, Pandit Pran Nath (Indian Dhrupad singing in the Kirana style) with Terry Riley on tamboura. And two concerts by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in the early nineties. ALL three concerts were charged with a magic that I have never since encountered again and that made me feel the inherent power of sounds and vibrations more than any albums that I ever owned!
MB: Did you have the impression that you literally could "watch the power of music at work" (maybe because the atmosphere at a concert perceptibly changed) – or is it rather a process that only can be experienced within the mind of each listener and isn’t visible on the outside in any way?
MG: Well, in the case of those three concerts I’ve mentioned everything changed: space, time, weather and perception. Without any drugs being involved. Of course, at such an event a basic open mindedness and a general love for music is a requirement. There occur collective experiences that connect to people’s individual biographies. That way, it was both: highly personal, but also a group experience beyond that.
For example, if we look at Pink Floyd. Any of their albums from the seventies was hailed a milestone. But apart from technical aspects, we have some songs which certainly were good as such, still there are bands today who are just as good at that, or even better. Yet, those bands hardly haven an audience today. Why?
Well, in the 70s Pink Floyd and especially Waters were spot on the zeitgeist. Waters used the band to express his grief for his absent father, and to deal with his problematic childhood and school days. These guys were at the right place at the right time and had the right music, and other bands, too. People collectively could relate to that, and at the same time, their personal stories were triggered. Everyone somehow could see himself in “Wish You Were Here” or “Another Brick in the Wall”.
I don’t find that intensity in today’s music anymore, although there is still, or maybe again and again, music that does touch me deeply.
MB: Do you think that music, or sound, to unfold it’s healing potential, needs to be listened to in a suitable environment or special setting? Is a concert the better place for such effects to be experienced, or maybe the attentive listening in the seclusion of one’s home? In your concerts, is it important to you to create a suitable surrounding in addition to the actual music, and if so, how?
MG: It’s not like I consciously try to convey such experiences or effects – because it just happens. It can happen anywhere, and that’s beyond my control. Of course, I’m happy to receive a concert offer that promises an unusual setting, but nothing ever guarantees a result. All I can do is to prepare myself and create a room but it’s up to the free will of each listener to enter it, and by resonance and interaction, this room then can be sustained. On CD as well as in concert I don’t only want to give my listeners music, but also nourishment for their spirit.
MB: So there is this perspective on the healing or mind altering potential of music that comes from eastern philosophy and different mystic branches of religion, but there is also a point of view that’s more inspired by science, especially physics. That train of thought says (roughly speaking), in the end all of the universe is made of vibrations that interact with one another, and therefore music – which is a form of art that’s about consciously creating an aesthetic gestalt by the means of vibrations – is a suitable tool to affect the human mind and body in a positive – and rather direct - way, because these too are constituted of vibrational patterns. I especially think of the harmonical tradition (Pythagoras, Kepler, Kayser, Cousto) or the 434 Hertz movement. What’s your opinion on that rather scientific point of view?
MG: Well, everything has it’s right to exist and is good for something.
Personally I can’t really connect to that stuff like tuning gongs to planetary frequencies and so on even if they are based on some complex mathematics, because I don’t really believe in the universal validity of that.
At times I think the scientific branch is something like the legalised version of the drug gurus and their research. Some of these people made their own profound inner experiences, but they are not allowed anymore to propagate that in public, like it still was in the sixties.
Because any experience is always a mix of collective consciousness and one’s own biography, there’s no such thing as THE book on music, or THE piece of music, or THE one right style etc.
Perhaps my drones are ‘cosmic downloads’ that contain a certain message but even if so: if perceived by our ears only, this message does not have the power to change our DNA and open up the way to more profound experiences of our inner self. Such music can, at best, give us a vague idea about who we are, and where our home is. Now we could have a long discussion about that, but I have the firm belief that if we manage to perceive music on more channels than just our ears which are governed by our brain with all it’s judgments and categorisations this will enable us to perceive it on a level which still is beyond our imagination, an expanded perception that might include the relativity of space and time, and the simultaneity of past, present and future, and more.
MB: Could you imagine that it’s possible to categorise the effects of music, or sound, in an objective way like mapping a specific effect on the human body or mind to specific rhythms, pitches or sounds (or combinations of these)? And in that way using music very much like a medicine?
MG: I partly answered this already in some of the other questions. It is imaginable, and would for sure be a good thing, but I doubt that there can be such a thing as an all-encompassing formula.
Some kind of ‚broad-spectrum antibiotic‘ certainly could be found by research and field studies probably quite quickly, but each person has his or her personal history, and therefore we need to specifically create personalised music for each ‘client’, which they listen to until the full healing potential has unfolded. At that point, each person needs a new combination of sound to continue the process – a never ending story. Also, both healer and patient had to resonate on the same vibrational level and to be connected in their hearts – in other words, it had to be a loving relationship. But since in fact our medical system is a brutal business for profit, I don’t so much doubt that ‚healing through music’ can be done, but I rather fear there is not enough genuine intention to really change and transform our world.
It’s only possible if we all unite and learn to feel our connection with the whole cosmos. Only then everything will become possible and paths and channels will open up which today we still call ‘extrasensory’ etc.
But CAUTION: a gift or special ability doesn’t necessarily mean that a person already is in touch with his heart, and with love.
MB: Apart from effects on the mental or human body level, can you imagine that music has the power to influence other processes or events on the physical plane – like some scientific version of a rain dance?
MG: Ha-ha, well, if some piece of music for example would bring about ‚spontaneous healing’ of a person with a fatal disease, they would probably call it a ‚wonder’ and then just put that case in the drawer. That which must not, can not be, right? Some others again might desperately search for a formula behind that and never find one. What is reality, and what is illusion? The only unchangeable, constant factor in our universe is gravitation.
MB: In the shamanic tradition, which we briefly mentioned, but also in psychedelic music and later in electronic trance music drugs played a certain role; if we look at meditation, dreams or other „expanded states of mind“ – including those that can be induced by musical techniques like mantra singing we find striking similarities between those experiences triggered by psychoactive drugs which people like Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary or in a more systematic way scientist Stanislav Grof have described, and those triggered by music. (Grof experimented in the 1950s and ‘60s with LSD in a scientific setting and interestingly replaced the drug later with combinations of different tactile stimulations (or also sensory deprivation) and music, achieving almost the same effects).
Did you have experiences with psychedelic drugs at some point in your life, and did that influence your music in any way (I remember Klaus Schulze stating in one of his interviews from the 70s: "Did LSD blaze a trail for us.")?
MG: My drug experiences were much fewer than one might expect from my story so far. Without going too much into details here: life neither gets any better nor does it get worse when we make use of little chemical helpers, or if we don’t. No one is making better music ‘with’ or ‘without’ them. That’s just not the point. It all depends on in which state of mind we are, and what our intention are when we take something.
Yes, I have had some experiences, but it didn’t make me a better, or in any way a more enlightened person.
MB: Do you think that the (moderate and conscious) use of drugs can enhance the spiritual or healing potential of music? Or would you rather agree to what many years ago a friend said to me: “The best drug is a clear mind”?
MG: None of us ever really has a clear mind - just a longing for our home. True as in the case of drugs: if dosage, surrounding and setting are right, they can have a positive effect, maybe even lasting but we have that tendency to always act from our ego, which drives us to constantly crave for more and intenser sensual experiences. We use drugs for disinhibition, for socialising, party, escape and fun. Certainly that’s not really the sense of drugs. On the other hand, someone who truly seeks a deep spiritual experience but only under ideal circumstances can perhaps make an important progress by them.
MB: My final few questions: I remember that there were times, like the late 1960s, but again in the late 80s and early 90s, when there was a wave of hope (or at least I believed so) that by some kind of ‚spiritual evolution’ maybe fueled by spiritual techniques and transformatory experiences humanity could be purified, and this world saved or renewed. Certainly this optimism is reflected in Hamel’s book "Through Music to the Self".
Did you, at some point, also have similar hopes or wishes, and how do you look at these things today? Do you think that music, and spirituality, has the power to change the world or maybe at least the life of some persons to the better? Or is it more like something beautiful for those who have a sensitivity for it, and our world just runs it’s course to a good or a bad end, without music in the end playing a big role in that?
MG: Today I believe that it’s impossible to escape of this "matrix of illusion" which constitutes our world, and the whole universe. At least not without feeling very deeply that all of us are just programs inside of a still much larger more complex program. We cannot see through this illusion within an even bigger illusion. There is no such thing as time, not in the sense of a linear stream of events, only different planes of ‘time’. To realise the truth means to feel that there is a real home beyond all sentiments and emotions. The absolute void is so vast and beyond our grasp that it causes fear.
The only key to enlightenment and the only escape from this dilemma is unconditional and unselfish love. Here and now, there’s nothing else to learn. Our time on Earth is the school of life.
Our real home is not here. All music of the world is an expression of our longing for that place where we once came from; all imaginable emotions are an expression of that yearning. That also means that I’m disillusioned, because New Age, the sense of departure towards a better world and everything which was so much idealised by the hippie generation turned out to be just another program to feed us humans; just a new toy in the old arena. My hope is my memory, which hopefully will be strong enough to bring me home. I don’t want to stay here for another round. My music is the echo of my call.
Copyright © 2016-2017 Michael Brückner & Mathias Grassow